On the road again

Two years ago I moved house for the 8th time. It was the fourth time I’d moved for a job and the second time I’d moved overseas.

As an academic, moving is an occupational hazard. Almost every academic I know has moved at least once in their career. Some have moved states to do their PhDs, others have moved countries for postdocs. Some have moved to big cities for promotions, others have moved to small towns for tenure.  Moving allows us to collaborate with new people, develop new skills, and explore new ideas. And, depending on where you end up, it can make for holidays in some pretty cool destinations!

Overseas or interstate moves, however, are not for the faint-hearted. If you’re contemplating making a move, here are my Top 10 Tips for making it there without sacrificing your physical or mental health.

(1) Talk to as many people as you can, at every stage of the process. Don’t wait until you’ve been offered the job to find out about the place you’ll be living and the people you’ll be working with. Visit if you can and make the most of Skype & Google if you can’t. Things to consider include the climate, the language or culture, and whether you can pursue your hobbies there (swimming pools and yoga studios were important to me). If you are moving with a partner or children, employment opportunities and schools will also need to be considered, as will access to doctors if you have a medical condition.

(2) Accept that you will need to put your research/teaching/supervision on hold while you move. Advise colleagues, industry partners, and students of your plans as early as possible and work with them to minimise disruptions to ongoing projects and ensure continuity of supervision for ongoing students.

(3) Back up all your data and review ethical and legal requirements for the storage and movement of data. Depending on the nature of your research you may have to leave hard copy data behind and if you’re taking it with you it may take time to make all the necessary arrangements.

(4) Ask for and accept help. This piece of advice was given to me by the wonderful Dr Kylie Smith, who made the move from Australia to the USA. When I asked Kylie how she survived the move, she said “This is not the time to be shy or proud. This is the time to ask for help and accept it when it’s offered.”

(5) Make lists. From visa applications and mail redirection to finding somewhere to live and getting your hair cut for the last time, the number of things you need to do before you leave is overwhelming and you will not be able to hold it all in your head. Make lists and work through them systematically. If you are moving with a partner or children, delegate. If you’re moving alone, breathe!

(6) Have a farewell. If you’re an extrovert this might be a given, but it’s also important if you’re an introvert. The idea of a party where I’m the centre of attention is my idea of hell. I’d much rather slip quietly out the door, while no-one’s looking, after a nice dinner with a few friends. But it’s not about me (or you!). A party is an opportunity for the people who care about you to say good-bye and to feel acknowledged for the role they’ve played in getting you to where you are or, more importantly, where you’re going.

(7) Engage in plenty of self-care. Moving is exhausting, both physically and mentally, and it’s important that you find time to rest, relax, and care for yourself. In the craziest week of my move (a week in which my old job ended, I moved out of my house, I moved in with friends, I put tenants in my house, I flew to another city for Christmas with my family, and I applied for my British visa), I did 7 yoga classes in six days. Although this presented a small logistical challenge, it was essential for keeping my body strong and my mind calm.

(8) Throw money at the problem. If you can afford it, pay for help. Whether that’s paying the moving company to pack your belongings, or paying someone to clean your house, out-sourcing a few jobs can really take the pressure off. If you can’t afford to pay professionals, invite your friends around for a working bee. If you supply the beer and chips, they’ll supply the labour. Trust me!

(9) Reduce, recycle, re-gift. As you pack up your office and your home, you’ll discover a mountain of things you no longer need or can’t take with you. From staplers to mattresses, almost everything you don’t want can have another life and throwing things into landfill should always be a last resort. Charities will welcome donations of good quality clothes, books, furniture, and household items. Most cities will have a company that recycles mattresses for a small fee, with the majority returning any profits to charities. Craft or sporting supplies can be donated to local childcare centres or schools, while food and toiletries can be donated to organisations that support refugees, homeless people, and families doing it tough. Your colleagues will happily take your stationery and your friends will gladly accept those two bottles of rum you claimed were for baking.

(10) Have fun! In the busy-ness and craziness of moving, it can be easy to misplace your excitement. Take a moment to stop and reflect on the wonderful opportunity you’ve been given and the fabulous new adventure upon which you are about to embark!

 

Have your recently moved for an academic job? Got other tips? Share them in the comments!

What’s care got to do with it?

I haven’t posted anything here for a while. But it’s not because I didn’t have anything to say. It’s because I’ve been trying to practice what I preach.

I spend the vast majority of my professional life talking about care – who gets it, who doesn’t, why it’s important, what happens when there’s not enough, and what happens when there’s too much. And although my research generally focuses on care for others, this year I turned my attention to self-care. Because the great irony of doing good research on the care of others, is that it often comes at the expense of caring for yourself.

Co-written with my Australian colleagues Sarah Pinto and Sharon McDonough, my latest paper explores the the importance of self-care for academics. It is a call-to-arms for academics who’ve neglected themselves in the pursuit of their work and a critique of the neoliberal systems that demand this kind of self-neglect. It is a to-do list for rediscovering self-care and a reminder that resistance comes in many forms. It’s also a poem. Because why the heck not!

You can read it here, or contact me for a copy. And then forgive me for not posting. I’ve been doing some much needed self-care.

And the beat goes on

The findings from my first collaboration with European colleagues were published this week. This is a significant milestone for me, because it’s exactly the kind of collaborative, international research I was pursuing when I packed up my life and moved to the UK just over a year ago. More importantly, however, it’s a significant contribution to a growing body of research on suicide and homicide risk in people caring for family members with dementia.

My previous research showed that 1 in 6 carers had contemplated suicide in the previous twelve months, that only half of them had ever told anyone they felt this way, and that 20% of them were likely to attempt suicide in the future. This research also found no difference in the rate of suicidal thinking experienced by carers supporting a person with dementia at home, carers supporting a person with dementia in a nursing home, and carers who had been recently bereaved. These were ground-breaking findings and they generated significant interest from the community, the media, playwrights, and other researchers. But there was still so much we needed to understand.

In particular, the research was cross-sectional, so we were only capturing suicidal thoughts at one point in time. Consequently, we didn’t know how thoughts of suicide changed over time and whether carers who thought about suicide after the person with dementia moved into care, or after they died, had also thought about it while caring at home.

This new research addresses that issue. The article has been published ‘open access’, which means you can read the entire thing here for free, but to summarise briefly:

  • The study followed almost 200 carers in the Netherlands for two years, none of whom had depression or anxiety at baseline
  • Over the 2 year period, 40% of carers developed depression and were assessed for thoughts of suicide
  • 12% reported thoughts of suicide, with one third of those reporting suicidal thoughts at multiple time points
  • Thoughts of suicide were seen in various patterns, including only before the person with dementia was admitted to a nursing home, before and after the person was admitted to a nursing home, only after the person was admitted to a nursing home, and after the person with dementia died.

These findings support my previous research and show the incredible toll that caring can take, particularly at key transition points such as institutionalisation and death.

What they also show is that thoughts of suicide are not unique to Australian carers, but rather appear to transcend social, cultural, and political boundaries. Although more research is required to understand how the health and social care policies of different countries might influence suicidal thinking, this is another important step toward understanding and preventing suicide-related thoughts and behaviours in family carers.

It is heartbreaking to do research that shows, time after time, how little the world cares about carers. They are the invisible scaffolding that holds up every part of our society and our communities would crumble without them. This research is only a small contribution to efforts to recognise and support the wonderful work of family carers, but, added to my other work and that of my colleagues around the world, I hope it is a meaningful one.

As ever, nothing good is done alone. I am indebted to Dr Karlijn Joling, Professor Cees Hertogh, and Professor Hein van Hout, who conducted the research that provided data for this study. I am particularly grateful to Karlijn, who led the analysis of the data and was a joy to write with. Karlijn, Cees, and Hein share my passion for research that cares and I look forward to our continued collaborationsl

 

Kapow!

Last year the lovely folks at Australian Ageing Agenda asked me to write an Opinion piece about family care. As well as advocating for carers, I used the opportunity to confess to the world my deep and abiding love for the Batman films. After originally appearing in the AAA magazine, the piece has now been posted online and you can read all about the wonderful work that carers do (and my shameful secret!) here.

Cake & Collaboration

The last line of my academic bio ends with the sentence “Siobhan believes the path to good research is paved with cake”. It’s an attempt to bring some lightness to the all too serious world of academic research, but more importantly, it’s a values statement. Because cake – unlike Freud’s cigar – is never just cake.

Brought into the tea room of a University, cake tells my colleagues I value their company, their contribution, and their compassion. Brought into a meeting with industry partners, cake tells community organisations that I value their time and their expertise, and I can be trusted with the vulnerable people they represent. Brought into interviews with research participants, cake tells carers and people with dementia that I value their stories, that I’m a person too, and that I understand how nerve-wracking it is to share your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

Of course the cake must be home-made. There’s no value in a store-bought cake. The value comes from having spent my own time and energy to create something just for my colleague, my partner, or my participant. That’s how people know I care.

And I care because I recognise that I cannot do good research alone. We often think of ground-breaking researchers as single entities – Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Neil deGrasse Tyson – but all research is the product of collaboration. My own collaborations span departments, universities, states, countries, disciplines, languages, and sectors. And my research is richer for it.

But in the early stages of a research career it can be hard to build collaborations, and part of my goal with this website and Shut Up & Write Tuesdays is to support emerging researchers. Which is why I recently became a Social Media Correspondent for Piirus, an academic networking website that helps to facilitate research collaborations across the world. The team at Piirus share my values and have good research – not profit – as their primary goal.

As part of my role at Piirus, I’ll be using my own social media and online presence to encourage researchers – particularly those in the early stages of their careers – to join Piirus. You’ll see that I’ve added a link to Piirus on the sidebar of this website and in my Twitter feed you’ll see the occasional Piirus-related tweet or retweet.

Piirus doesn’t offer cake, but it certainly offers collaboration. And when it comes to good research, that’s the next best thing!

Non-Required Reading

When I was traveling in the US last year I picked up The Best American Non-Required Reading 2014. I love compilation books, but it was the phrase ‘non-required’ in the title of this one that really piqued my interest.

I’ve long believed that (a) great writers are great readers and (b) great reads are rarely found in academic journals. And, with this in mind, I’ve often fantasised about creating a reading list for PhD students that would improve their academic writing by introducing them to a range of quality fiction, narrative non-fiction, essays, feature writing, and poetry.

Of course some academics would argue that if a PhD student has time to read for pleasure, they’re not working hard enough. But I think this is a dangerous attitude. Most PhD students struggle with writing and the majority of supervisors have neither the time nor the skills to offer meaningful guidance. Encouraging students to read widely and read well is a fast and effective way to improve their writing. It’s also a powerful way to promote the sort of work-life balance practices that are essential to surviving life as an academic! (And if that weren’t convincing enough, there’s also the fact that intellectual cross-pollination of exactly this sort has been responsible for some serious scientific breakthroughs!)

The only real problem I can see is how to narrow down the list. There are so many fantastic things to read and most PhDs only take three years. But I had a bit of time this week and I thought I’d at least have a go. So here, for your consideration, is my draft Non-Required Reading List for PhD Students.

Year One
Every Month: 4 articles of your choosing from LongReads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic
January: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
February: Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley
March: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
April: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill
May: The Best Australian Essays (your choice of year)
June: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
July: The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart by Ruth Behar
August: Cloud Street by Tim Winton
September: Shakespeare on Love edited by Michael Kerrigan
October: Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
November: Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner
December: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Year Two
Every Month: 4 articles of your choosing from Long Reads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic
January: The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
February: Tall Man: A Death in Aboriginal Australia by Chloe Hooper
March: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
April: An Opening: Twelve Love Stories About Art  by Stephanie Radok
May: My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel
June: A David Sedaris book of your choice
July: Electricity for Beginners by Michelle Dicinoski
August: On Beauty by Zadie Smith
September: The Best Australian Essays (your choice of year)
October: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
November: The Collected Stories by T. Coraghessan Boyle
December: All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Year Three
Every Month: 4 articles of your choice from LongReads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic
January: The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum
February: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
March: The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize by Peter Doherty
April: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
May: Out to Lunch by Andy Kissane
June: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
July: The Best Australian Essays (your choice of year)
August: The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl by Roald Dahl
September: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
October: The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
November: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
December: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Got other suggestions? Leave me a comment.

It’s Complicated

While conducting research on suicide risk in family carers of people with dementia, my colleagues and I received a note from a participant that said You asked if I wanted to kill myself, but you didn’t ask if I wanted to kill the person I’m caring for. Naturally this raised a lot of questions and concerns and we decided to embark on a study of homicidal ideation in family carers. The findings from that study were published this week and I thought I’d take the opportunity to share them here and discuss the implications.

Here’s a brief summary:

  • We interviewed 21 Australians providing care for a family member with dementia.
  • Two reported actively contemplating homicide while caring and four expressed a passive desire for the care recipient’s death.
  • When asked about homicide, four carers talked about euthanasia.
  • Thought of homicide and passive death wishes were the result of physical and psychological fatigue, an unwillingness to place the person with dementia into residential care, self-defence, isolation, and a sense of being trapped in the caring role.
  • Thoughts of euthanasia were framed in terms of compassion, quality of life, dignity and respect for the person with dementia.
  • None of the carers who had contemplated homicide or had passive death wishes had ever acted on their thoughts.
  • Those who spoke of euthanasia were frustrated at the lack of legal options, but adamant that they wouldn’t take matters into their own hands.
  • All the carers who reported homicidal thoughts or passive death wishes were women.
  • None of the carers who had contemplated homicide or had passive death wishes had ever shared their thoughts with anyone.

To our knowledge there has been no previous research on homicidal ideation in family carers. What previous research has shown, however, is that up to 40% of completed spousal homicide-suicides among older adults are perpetrated by someone caring for a partner with a long-term illness or disability. By asking carers about homicidal thoughts while they are caring, the current research allows us to better understand the factors that place people at risk and identify ways to prevent these sort of deaths in the future.

Although thoughts of homicide do not necessarily lead to homicidal behaviour, the fact that some carers are contemplating homicide is a cause for concern and reflects the high level of distress that many carers experience on a daily basis. Unfortunately, some people will be quick to use this work to shame carers who contemplate homicide. Although I don’t condone violence or abuse, I also don’t want to see carers vilified. The vast majority of carers are amazing people, doing an incredibly difficult job, with very little support. So let’s use this research to help them see that they’re not alone and help them find the support they need. Those on the frontline – GPs, social workers, nurses, pharmacists, aged care providers, and advocacy organisations – all have a part to play in identifying and supporting carers who are struggling. These are not easy conversations, but they are important ones.

I think it’s also important to recognise that these findings are indicative of a bigger social problem. It’s easy to think of dementia and caring as personal issues, but they are social, political, and economic issues. In Australia alone there are more than 300,000 people caring for family members with dementia and if they all stopped tomorrow, it would cost the government more than $30 billion a year to replace the care they provide. Carers make a significant social contribution, but much of the stress they experience stems directly from a lack of social, political, and economic support — delays in the dementia diagnosis, a lack of access to quality respite care, a lack of understanding from employers, and the challenges of navigating the aged care system, just to name a few. So while we must work to identify and support individual carers who are contemplating homicide, we must also take action at a higher level, advocating and agitating for a social, political, and economic framework that makes caring a less stressful and more sustainable experience.

The overlap between homicide and euthanasia in this study also highlights the need for a serious public conversation about the right to die with dignity.

As this research gets disseminated – particularly via the media – the findings may be taken out of context, oversimplified, or hijacked. But homicidal ideation in family carers is a complex phenomenon – it cannot be reduced to soundbites, it must not be used for political gain, and there is so much about it we still don’t understand. Ultimately I hope that this research will start important conversations about caring and its role in our society. I also hope it will lead to further research on homicidal ideation in carers (including quantitative studies, comparisons across countries, and research on people caring for family members with other illnesses and disabilities) and help to facilitate the social, political, and economic changes that are needed to better support people with dementia and their families.

If you’d like to read the full paper and have institutional access, please go to the journal website. If you don’t have access, please contact me for a copy.

If you or someone you know is contemplating homicide or suicide, or needs urgent support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, The Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, or the crisis line in your area.